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Beyond Blues: Standard-Tuned Slide

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Anyway, onto actually playing slide.

Here’s the basic idea: A slide is a hard object that, when placed against a string, acts like a fret, only it’s one we can move. Slides can be made of anything from old medicine bottles, wine bottlenecks (this is why some people refer to slide as bottleneck guitar), glazed ceramic, brass, spoons, and microphone stands. Danny Gatton sometimes even used his half-filled beer bottle! Each slide will give you a slightly different tone. For example, a ceramic slide tents to sound a lot warmer than a brass slide. Personally, I opt for a thick Pyrex slide that’s quite loose on my finger. Head on down to your guitar store and try a few out before settling.

The next issue is to decide which finger wears the slide. Many traditional players put the slide on the little finger, while some prefer the ring finger. Some even wear it on their middle finger. I learned to play slide with it on my ring finger, as that felt natural to me, but then taught myself to play with it on my middle finger, like Garsed. This allowed me to fret notes after the slide with two other fingers and angle the slide when playing in standard tuning. Each finger has its own benefits and special techniques, but everything presented in this lesson will be standard stuff, so any finger will do.

But I will say this: Whatever fingers are behind the slide (between the slide and the nut) should lightly rest on the strings to stop any sympathetic vibrations and overtones.

I’m also playing fingerstyle here, which allows me to mute unwanted strings more effectively and get a warmer tone. As a rule, my picking-hand thumb will mute strings below the one I’m playing, and my middle, ring, and little fingers will mute the higher strings while I pluck with my index finger. Many traditional slide players play in an open tuning, so ringing strings usually don’t sound wrong. I’ve opted to do all of these licks in standard tuning like Garsed or Hinds, because I want to be able to play slide when I’m inspired, not when I’m in the right tuning. Muting is key to this approach!

It’s also worth mentioning the Derek Trucks raking technique that I do to give notes a little more bite. The idea is to rake the lower strings with the thumb before plucking the intended note. This gives you a percussive attack and adds to the overall experience.

I’m playing all the audio examples on Macy, my Brent Mason-inspired Suhr. To make slide a little easier, I’ve brought the action up a little more than you’d expect to find on a stock guitar, but it’s not so high that I can’t play standard guitar with minimal effort.

Our first example (Fig. 1) sits nicely around the fourth minor pentatonic box pattern in the key of E major. I’m raking up and sliding into the b3 but using the slide to gradually push that note sharp—it has a great bluesy effect.

Fig. 2 highlights the more horizontal way of playing slide, as I’m jumping up to the 4th fret on the 2nd string, going up to D, down to B, and then shifting down to hit our bluesy b3 again. On the repeat I jump up to the root, again on the 2nd string. A simple phrase like this has covered a whopping 10 frets!

Fig. 3 is another bluesy number based on the E blues scale (E–G–A–Bb–B–D). Listen for the slide into the first note, which is actually below its intended pitch. It’s then slowly brought to pitch and pushed sharp before moving down the blues scale.

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